As noted in yesterday’s post, taking one of the extra-cost “Up Close Tours” of the Kennedy Space Center can make this SUN ‘n FUN side trip worth the cost. For me, seeing the original Cape Canaveral was my ticket back in time.
After a security check (Cape Canaveral is an Air Force base,) you’ll leave Merritt Island heading east across the Banana River to the Cape.
Here is where manned spaceflight began, a spot our guide said was selected after 1947 rocket testing in White Sands, New Mexico, shot one into Mexican territory. The Cape is isolated, close enough to the equator for orbital operations, and boasts a “3,000-mile shooting gallery” over the open Atlantic.
More than 40 launch pad sites line the Atlantic coast in a curving row. Old Hangar S, the Mercury astronauts’ original home and training base, is also still there — although its fate is hotly debated for its reported $140,000-a-year maintenance cost.
Your first stop is Launch Complex 26 where the Army (pre-NASA) launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1. Wernher von Braun’s team pulled it off in January 1958, following the Navy’s December attempt at a Vanguard launch that fireballed on national TV. Such competing military activity was consolidated into a single civilian agency, NASA, in July of 1958. Seven astronauts were soon selected and in May, 1961, Alan Shepard rode America’s first (suborbital) spaceflight.
That happened at Pad 5, where today a replica Mercury capsule sits atop an actual Redstone rocket. What’s shocking is that the firing control building is less than 400 feet away. Back then, we were told, electrical connections and telemetry were D.C. electric. Like all things D.C., there was a line length limit.
No wonder they called them blockhouses, these squat, square, thick-walled fortresses. (Later “launch control centers” became circular half-domes farther from launch pads.) Blockhouse windows were small, 42-ply affairs.
Also remarkable: The preserved 1950s-era computers that ran countdown functions. An old Burroughs unit there was said to boast just 5.1 KB of memory!
Another surprising insight: The prominent function of heavy-duty weight scales in the blockhouse. With on-board fuel and oxidizer being loaded or venting off, launch officials needed the rocket’s exact launch weight in real time. Therefore a space-age version of truck scales on the launch pad!
There’s lots of aerospace lore at hand. For instance, modern launch support structures (initially just flimsy painter’s scaffolds around the rocket) were developed from oil derrick designs supplied by one Texas company, Gantry. They are still called “Gantries” today. You’ll also see a display of capsule seats used by chimpanzees (Able, Baker, Ham, et. al.) shot into space before humans took their turn.
At almost every turn, you’ll see an iconic status board, countdown clock or other feature you saw time-and-again on TV or in news photos. Some history is poignantly unseen: In an old Minuteman test silo is the wreckage of Space Shuttle Challenger. And the visit to deserted Launch Complex 34, site of the fatal 1967 Apollo 1 fire, was pure pathos. More encouraging were distant views of today’s 15-per-year launch schedule including at LC 37, where a new GPS satellite would fly the next day.
To get the best of it, be sure to plan ahead online, reserve an “Up Close Tour” and do some reading in advance. Go see the Cape and be thankful you can just get onto this hallowed ground, testament to America’s audacious 20th Century in Flight.
Go sooner rather than later; with NASA and contractor space programs spooling up, some tours, such as the Apollo/Shuttle-era Launch Control Center tour, could end on short notice.
And go see the Astronaut Hall of Fame you passed just before KSC. Originally spearheaded by legendary AP space reporter Howard Benedict, it has some high points worth a look. (Your KSC Visitor’s Center admission gets you in free.)
Intriguing is a display of Collier’s far-fetched 1952 cover stories on space travel “right around the corner.” More realistic was Life magazine’s 1959 exclusive series on the Mercury astronauts and their personal stories. Life coverage on display also includes issues on the astronaut wives.
There’s also Gordon Cooper’s kneepad from the last (1963) Mercury flight with hand-written notes (radioed up by John Glenn) for his unplanned, unprecedented manual re-entry.
And a 30-foot flow chart depicts the complex trail of astronaut flight assignments leading to the first moon landing crew. (Among complications: Five contenders had been killed — three in the Apollo 1 fire and two others flying their T-38.) For sheer pilot lore, there are the flight jackets and helmets of many astronauts from their old military flying days.
Finish up a multi-day stay in the area at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. It’s on the northeast corner of Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, just up the road from FBO Bristow Air Center where you can order a rental car if you’re flying in.
© 2014 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved